Monday, November 21, 2011

a new tradition for the holidays

I'm the first to admit, I usually skip over or delete forwarded email messages.  I'm not too worried about seven years of bad luck if I don't forward it on to twelve of my closest friends.  Not to be Debbie-downer or anything, but my inbox is overflowing the way it is. So when a friend e-mailed this message to me the other day, luckily the title caught my eye just before I hit delete. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. 

We always buy local, organic, handmade, and American-made whenever we're able.  But this year for the holidays, we're taking our pledge very seriously: no big-box retailers, no made in China.  None.  Sure that might mean being a bit more creative for the special ones on our list, but that just makes it all the more meaningful and fun!

So read on and get inspired! (And don't forget about shopping to support Small Business Saturday on November 26th.)


 As the holidays approach, the giant Asian factories are kicking into high gear to provide Americans with monstrous piles of cheaply produced goods -- merchandise that has been produced at the expense of American labor. This year will be different. This year Americans will give the gift of genuine concern for other Americans. There is no longer an excuse that, come gift-giving time, nothing can be found that is produced by American hands. It's just not true!

So it's time to think outside the box, people. Who says a gift needs to fit in a shirt box, wrapped in Chinese produced wrapping paper?

*Everyone gets their hair cut. How about gift certificates from your local American hair salon or barber?

*Gym membership? It's appropriate for all ages who are thinking about some health improvement.

*Who wouldn't appreciate getting their car detailed? Small, American-owned detail shops and car washes would love to sell you a gift certificate or a book of gift certificates.

*Are you one of those extravagant givers who think nothing of plonking down the Benjamins on a Chinese made flat-screen? Perhaps that grateful gift receiver would like his driveway sealed, or lawn mowed for the summer, a driveway plowed all winter, or games at the local golf course.

*Think handmade. Talented artists and crafts people are everywhere and they're selling their wares online - they create beautiful and unique jewelry, wooden items, scarves, toys, pottery, paintings, clothes, and so much more.  (Hint, hint: time to check out Smiling Tree Toys and all the other amazing shops on Etsy.)

*There are so many family-owned and operated restaurants -- all offering gift certificates.  If your intended isn't the fancy eatery sort, what about a half dozen breakfasts at the local breakfast joint. Remember, folks this isn't about big national chains -- this is about helping your home town Americans with their financial lives on the line to keep their doors open.

*How many people couldn't use an oil change for their car, truck or motorcycle, done at a shop run by the American working guy?

*Thinking about a heartfelt gift for mom? She'd love the services of a local cleaning lady for a day.

*My computer could use a tune-up, and I know I can find some young, talented person who is struggling to get his/her repair business up and running.

Honestly, do you really need to buy another ten thousand Chinese lights for the house? When you buy a five dollar string of light, about fifty cents stays in the community. If you have those kinds of bucks to burn, how about leaving the mailman, trash guy, or babysitter a nice big tip?

You see, Christmas is not about draining American pockets so that China can build another glittering city. Christmas is about caring  for our neighbors, and encouraging American small businesses to keep following their dreams.  When we care about other Americans, we're caring for our communities, and the benefits come back to us in ways we couldn't imagine.

This is the new American holiday tradition.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Keeping it close to home: our new homegrown, organic wood finish

We're so lucky.  We're doing what we love (handcrafting eco-friendly wooden toys) in a place we love (the peaceful Minnesota prairie), surrounded by people we love (family, friends, and a tight-knit community).  Does it get any better than that?!  I don't think so....

So what's the reason for my state of sheer bliss on this fine autumn morning?  We've just made another giant leap towards being a truly earth friendly, locally sourced business with the tiniest of eco-footprints.

We're super-duper proud to announce that:

** we now finish our toys with our very own blend of
organic camelina oil and beeswax  
both fresh off our family's organic farm **

So the obvious first question that comes to mind is What in the world is camelina?  Why thanks for asking!  Camelina is an oilseed native to areas of Europe and Asia.  It's a close relative of flax and is known by other names such as wild flax, gold of pleasure, and Siberian oilseed.  (Check out Wikipedia to learn a bit more.)

camelina flowers in full bloom (Batalden Farm, June 2011)
Our family recently began growing a small plot of camelina.  The oil from the seeds is wonderfully nutritous and flavorful.  Like flaxseed oil, camelina oil is loaded with heart healthy Omega 3 fatty acids.  The kicker, though, is that camelina has lots more Vitamin E antioxidants than flax.  This means it doesn't go rancid quickly like flax does.  The Omega 3's, antioxidants, and other nutrients in camelina oil reach you in a much fresher and more beneficial state than those in flaxseed oil.  And that means good things for your health.

When we pressed our first batch of camelina seeds last spring, we were also just starting up Smiling Tree Toys.  And when that gorgeous, golden oil came trickling out of the press, we knew it was the perfect finish for our toys.  Serendipitous, indeed.

freshly harvested camelina seeds - so tiny!

And it gets even better.  We add our very own organic beeswax to the camelina oil to make Smiling Tree's wood finish. 
Yep, our family's land is also home to a very happy and healthy family of honey bees.  We were thrilled to find a local beekeeper who uses our organic farmland as a seasonal home for his bees in exchange for delicious raw honey and beeswax.
You've probably heard how dangerously low the world's honey bee populations have declined in recent years.  It's quite alarming.  Have you seen the new documentary film Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us?  I've heard great things, but haven't seen it yet.  (That'll be evening entertainment for this winter.)  You can also get your kiddos interested in the disappearance of honey bees with this article from National Geographic for Kids.
our beehives in their primo location - completely organic and pesticide free

Why do we finish our toys with this eco-homegrown goodness?  The camelina oil does a few things: it brings out the beautiful color and grain patterns in the wood, makes the different kinds of hardwoods that we use (maple, walnut, and cherry) contrast wonderfully with one another, and offers protection from dirt, little fingerprints, and other stains.  The beeswax gives a light waterproof protection to the oiled wood.  When they need a little rejuvenating, you can wash our toys with warm, soapy water.  That won't hurt them.  But don't let them sit in water for very long; keep them out of the bath tub and out of the rain and they'll be much happier! After washing, just sand them with a fine grit sandpaper before re-oiling them with any food-grade oil in your kitchen. 

Here's a jar of our camelina-beeswax blend.  The oil by itself is liquid, but adding the beeswax gives it a creamy consistency.  Just perfect for coating wood.

Smiling Tree's very own organic, homegrown wood finish

 And finally, for the full effect, here's our Smiling Moon Balancer before we oil it:


 and after we add our organic camelina-beeswax blend:

 finished Smiling Moon Balancer

Quite an incredible transformation, isn't it?  And all thanks to just a few things from Mother Nature, all in their purest and most natural forms.  When you're fortunate enough to be doing something that you love...and when that something is organic, sustainable, and gentle on the just feels good.  Plain and simple. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

six(teen) impossible things before breakfast

Alice laughed, "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."  "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
-Alice in Wonderland

I got that feeling this morning. You know, when you wake up in the morning after a great night's sleep, confirm the hubby and little one are still in dreamland, and you think I'm going to take over the world today!!  Yes, that was lucky enough to be me.  It was 5:52 a.m.  Brewed a cup of herbal tea, turned NPR on the radio, and said "let's do this!"

So what did I do?  What any other over-ambitous work-from-home Mom would do - I made sixteen quarts of homemade yogurt.  That's right, sixteen.  (Needless to say, we love our yogurt around here.)  Was it worth it?  You bet your bootie. 

This is Amana's first-ever yogurt face at 7 months.

Not very convincing I know.  But now, a few months later, this little lady just can't get enough of the stuff.   Plain, with fruit, on pancakes, in oatmeal, even lukewarm with soggy Cheerios, or licked off her highchair tray - she'll eat it any which way she can get it.   

The added bonus, of course, is that plain yogurt (naturally sugar-free) is super good for anyone, young or old.  It's loaded with all of the good bacteria that you need for a healthy gut.  And a strong, healthy tummy means better digestion, a stronger immune system, and all-around better health. 

Making yogurt at home saves big on the grocery bill. We get fresh, antibiotic-free milk from a neighbor for $2/gallon.  One gallon of milk gets me 4 quarts of yogurt.  That means I'm making nutritous yogurt at home for about $0.50/quart.  If I bought good organic yogurt in the store, I'd easily pay $4/quart.  Yikes! Even if you can't get milk from your neighbor, it's still worth your time.  OK all you over-ambitous mamas like myself - here you go!  

Grandma B's Homemade Yogurt
--makes 8 quarts of creamy, delectable plain yogurt--

what you'll need:       
       chest cooler
       2 gallon-sized containers
       8 glass quart jars with covers
       double boiler (or rig one up like I did with my canner and stock pot)
       2 gallons milk
       2 cups starter (plain yogurt from the store)
       large liquid measuring cup
       1/2 cup measurer

time required:
     about one hour, start-to-finish

-fill 2 gallon-size containers with very hot water and put in cooler to pre-heat it (your freshly heated milk and starter will soon sit in the cooler for several hours, ideally at a constant temp of 100-105 degrees Farenheit)

-pre-heat 8 glass quart jars by filling them with hot water and letting them sit near your sink

-take yogurt starter out of fridge so that it reaches room temperature

(1) pour 3-1/2 quarts (14 cups) of milk into double boiler and heat on medium high, stirring occassionally

(2) when milk reaches 180 degrees, remove from heat and pour into another bowl.  Let milk cool to 110 degrees.  You can stir it or put the bowl in a sink of cold water to quicken the cooling process.  (Because if you're anything like me, you've got oodles of other things to get done today, too!)

(3) while waiting for milk to cool, empty the glass quart jars and pour 1/4 cup yogurt starter into each

(4) when milk is 110 degrees, pour into jars, filling each one so that the milk line is 1/2" below the jar's neck.  Screw lids on and shake each jar well.

(5) put yogurt jars in chest cooler and do your best to maintain a temp of 100-105 degrees in the cooler for the next 3-4 hours.  You might have to remove the gallon jars of water and/or refill them with newly heated water to keep it at the right temp.  (The higher the temp in the cooler, the more quickly the yogurt will set and the stronger it will taste.)

(6) after about 3 hours, check yogurt by tipping several jars on their sides to see if the yogurt has set.  It should be one, firm mold, with a small amount of liquid moving freely around it.  If it still seems runny, let the jars sit in the cooler longer, all the while maintaining the ideal temp. Continue to check them off-and-on until the yogurt is set.

(7) remove jars from cooler and voila, you're done!! (let cool before refrigerating)

Freeze as much as you want, it tastes great even after thawing.  Just remember to empty a small portion of each jar before freezing to allow room for expansion.  Yogurt (fresh or thawed) generally keeps well in the fridge for 7-10 days.  It'll keep in the freezer for months.  If you turn into a 'yogurt snob' such as myself and only want to eat your own homemade yogurt, you can set aside some in your freezer to use as starter for next time.


There it was, just 7:45 am.  The little one was still sound asleep, the hubby had snuck out to the Smiling Tree woodshop, and I had 16 beautiful jars of soon-to-be yogurt tucked away in coolers in the corner of my kitchen. 

And that, my friends, is this woman's feat of six(teen) impossible things before breakfast.  Hmmm, now what of the rest of my day?  I've always wanted to make cheese....

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

an Ode to Peace Corps...

The little one and I are spending a sunny afternoon in the house today trying to escape the heat.  I'm also trying (quite successfully I must say) to avoid an ugly pile of paperwork that has called my desk home for weeks now.

We've been a bit slow at getting our blog up and running since we started it a few months ago.  I blame Amana, the 9-month old who rules every waking second of the Smiling Tree household.  (I don't know what my go-to excuse will be years from now when the little ones are all grown up and out of the house!)

Our blog will still focus on our family's journey toward a simple, sustainable life on the Minnesota prairie, natural parenting, and keep you updated on the goings-on of Smiling Tree Toys.  But it's also going to be a great way for us to give a shout-out to the people, places, and ideas that inspire us and yes, as cliche as it may sound, "make the world a better place."

So on that note, let me tell you why I'm avoiding paperwork and strolling down memory lane this afternoon.  It all started with an email yesterday from fellow Etsy shop owners KerryandLogan.  This adventurous couple just joined Peace Corps and is moving to Ukraine this fall.  In an effort to raise funds to pay for their college loans while they're serving abroad, Kerry and Logan are selling some gorgeous artwork and poem collections.  Here are two of my favorites:

FUNDRAISER, Landscaping Print

Home Grown, a Collection of Illustrated Poems

Kerry and Logan will spend the next two years of their life immersed in a new community, new culture, new climate, new language, new clothes, new food, and new work environment.  That's a lot of "newness"...  Kudos to them for giving the next two years of their lives to do their small part to positively change the world!

So just what does this have to do Smiling Tree? 

Where do we begin...

 As many of you might already know, we served with the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa from 2008-2010.  It was life-changing to say the least.  In fact, our daughter Amana (pronounced "ah-MAH-nah") was named for the Hausa (Niger's primary language) word meaning "trust and friendship".  We also make a donation to Peace Corps youth projects for every toy we sell.  Niger is in our blood. 

We made life-long friends, family really, who are now living a world away from us.  But we know they're never more than a few (well, FOUR actually!) plane rides away.  We look forward to the day when we can return to our 'home away from home' and reunite with our Nigerian community.  Until then, though, the magic of cell phones lets us call them regularly to check in and see how our goats, school garden, and tree nursery are doing.

In a future post, we'll share a few of our most powerful experiences and lessons learned during our time in Niger.  We've got pictures that'll bring a tear to your eye (or at least to mine).

In the mean time, here are a few Etsy finds that pay a small tribute to Peace Corps and the passionate, creative people who have helped make it a reality:

Upcycled Peace Corps Vinage Stamp Magnet

Robert F. Kennedy, WITH CHILDREN, Clyde Keller RFK Photo

Sargent Shriver silk screened t-Shirt

Tanzania Map Journal

And our two Smiling Tree "ode to Peace Corps" favorites:
organic peace dove TEETHING TOY - safe all natural wooden bird fun for eco babies toddlers

organic Africa TEETHING TOY - natural wooden grasping teether eco friendly babies infants kids 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can

change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

-Margaret Mead

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Introducing our POLKA DOT PLAYMATES!

We're super duper excited to roll out a new line of toys this past week - POLKA DOT PLAYMATES! They're cute and funky little hardwood toys that can be teethers, grasping toys, and/or imagination play pieces.  The funnest (I know that's not a real word, but it just has to be said!) part about them are the colorful little polka dots we've added. 

You might think of these one-of-a-kind gems as our "teething toys with a little extra pizzazz"...  

Georgia Giraffe has always been one of our favorite teethers, but she really was just begging for her very own giraffe spots.  (We think she was feeling a bit self-conscious about not having them, so this has really made her day!)  Her she is, all dressed up and happy as a clam:
Georgia giraffe

We've had spring on our minds lately.  Our backyard is home to some lovely little butterflies and ladybugs, both of which inspired these playmates:

cute-as-a-button ladybug

crazy colorful butterfly

For those of you who know a soon-to-be Daddy, this is an especially darling little polka dot necktie:

funky necktie

If any other shapes that are polka dot-friendly come to mind, please share your ideas!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Adventure Begins....

Welcome to STT's blog! A place for you to:
  • get to know the faces behind Smiling Tree
  • read and share tips, stories, and experiences for all things "natural, organic, and eco-friendly for little ones and their parents"
  • get insiders' tips, catch sneak previews, and enter contests for Smiling Tree toys 
  • learn what we're up to in our little corner of Minnesota
  • and some other stuff (gotta leave it opened ended - who knows where this adventure will take us!)
Our Etsy toy shop is "GOIN' GANGBUSTERS" as Justin likes to say...  We're thrilled to be oh-so-close to our 100th sale, we're introducing new toys - Polkadot Playmates - this week, and we just opened a few wholesale accounts. 

Perhaps our most impressive feat as of late, though, as that we've done all of this while taking care of our little TEETHING MONSTER (aka our 7 month old little lady Amana).

Here she is now, discovering grass for the first time (Yes, spring has *finally* sprung in Minnesota. We were beginning to wonder...)

"I'm lovin' this green stuff!"

~~~~~Welcome and enjoy!~~~~~